Meet the COVID Crew

May 3, 2021

How these Spartans kept the sun shining at a Detroit charter school

By Lauren Knapp

COVID-19 dramatically changed daily operations for schools. Read how MSU alumni in one school responded, and how they are teaching and learning through the pandemic—together. (Read more COVID-19 stories: Mini-MOOC, Massive Results | On the Front Lines)

It’s all in the name. At Detroit Achievement Academy, achievement—personal, professional, academic—is at the forefront. And it’s what’s making this charter school, established in 2013, succeed. For the educators at DAA, achievement means more than great test scores or high attendance (although the school has notable successes in both). It means having students and staff who are joyful in coming to school, who find safety and success within its walls. 

It means being part of the Crew.

Four Spartans are among the staff who are focused on reaching for and attaining goals. Read about how this tight-knit crew uplifts, encourages and leads—even during the midst of a global pandemic. 

From Left to Right: Kevin O’Brien, Genel Fowler, Cristyn Wilson and Mario Lemons. Photo: Detroit Achievement Academy


Every so often, teachers at DAA will get a letter in the mail, written by themselves. It’s part of the school’s Sunshine Committee—an effort to add a little brightness to the school. 

Initiatives include treats for birthdays and motivational letters teachers write to themselves to be mailed whenever they might need an extra boost. The committee, which includes Instructional Guide and Intervention Coordinator Genel Fowler (whose nickname, given by Head of School Mario Lemons, is Sunshine), has been working extra hard during COVID-19 to add little rays of light wherever they can. 

“At our school, social and emotional well-being is just as important as academics,” Lemons, an MSU alumnus, explained. “If we care about each other as people, we are doing our best work. We’re in this together.” 

The school has a wellness stipend for teachers to fulfill self-care needs. In 2020, the school also unveiled more initiatives for teachers:

  • Stipend to support Black-owned and -operated businesses to uplift causes that mean something to the school community.
  • Salary increases to acknowledge the work they’ve been doing before and during COVID-19. 

“Our work is twice as hard right now,” Fowler said. “The support from the school showed: ‘We believe you deserve this, and we’re making this happen.’” 

Fowler, a Spartan alumna, knows the school’s support first-hand. When her grandmother and uncle died from COVID-19, her friends from DAA were among the first to reach out in support. 

That is the “very fabric of what DAA is,” according to Lemons. Each week begins and ends with school-wide “Crew” assemblies—playing games, doing activities that are academically motivated, checking in on one another. At the beginning and end of each day, individual classes host their own sessions to do the same.

“As teachers, we have the potential to make positive impacts on human beings,” said Lemons. “These students are going to grow up and become adults. We want them to be responsible, compassionate to others. The best way to begin that process is to model how to be that. If we do this right, the world will be a better place.” 


Mario Lemons headshot. He is head of school at DAA, as well as a B.A. '12 (Elementary Education), TCRT '13 and M.A. '15 (Teaching & Curriculum)

Mario Lemons became head of school at Detroit Achievement Academy in 2019, so “normal” in his role isn’t exactly something he’s experienced yet. But what he has experienced is the Crew community, and leading and helping others in any way he can.

“We’re constantly figuring out ways to support families, to support each other,” he said. “If I need to jump into the classroom and substitute teach, that’s what I need to do. Our duty is to provide the best education we can.” 

The best education, for Lemons, meant going to the best school in the country. He knew of MSU’s reputation for elite education programs, and knew that was the best place for him—just like he knew teaching was meant for him. 

Lemons hasn’t looked back on joining “the most fulfilling career.” 

At MSU, he participated in the Urban Educators Cohort Program (UECP) and worked toward the goal of teaching in Detroit. After taking Human Diversity, Power and Opportunity in Social Institutions (TE 250), Lemons learned about the disparities in education, particularly and often for those who come from urban backgrounds. Though Lemons himself had a positive experience in Detroit Public Schools, he better understood divisions in the quality of education. 

“I knew I needed to get back to Detroit to provide the best educational experience for every kid,” he said. 

Lemons and Genel Fowler. Photo: Detroit Achievement Academy.

He and Genel Fowler both started their Detroit teaching journey at a school led by MSU College of Education alumnus Curtis Lewis, B.A. ’00 (Elementary Education), M.A. ’03 (Curriculum & Teaching) and Ph.D. ’11 (Curriculum, Teaching & Educational Policy). There, they saw what they learned through UECP in a real-world classroom context. It changed everything and, as both Lemons and Fowler looked to transition to the next phase of their career, it meant continuing those same ideals wherever they went—including to Detroit Achievement Academy. 

The pandemic changed everything, too, and is forcing Lemons and the DAA staff to be innovative, to show up and to never give up every single day, also skills learned from MSU’s Teacher Preparation Program

Lemons, left, in a 2008 photo with Associate Dean Sonya Gunnings-Moton and fellow Spartan Alexis Jackson. Lemons, Jackson and fellow DAA educator Cristyn Wilson were two of those selected as Broad Scholars, individuals who would receive pre-college preparation in a program funded by philanthropist and MSU alumnus Eli Broad. Broad died in April 2021. His legacy continues in the college’s and university’s continued commitment to improving urban education.

“Everyone plays their part here,” Lemons said. “I want to pull my weight and give 100%. Yes, there are moments where we have to motivate ourselves and each other, but overall, everyone is really receptive because they choose to be here. They choose to be a teacher.” 


Cristyn Wilson headshot. She's a 4/5th grade math teacher and a B.A. '12 (Elementary Education), TCRT '13 and M.A. '15 (Teaching & Curriculum)

For Cristyn Wilson, teaching was natural. Throughout her own educational journey, she often helped students in younger grades with various assignments, and later volunteered before and after school as a teacher’s assistant. While at MSU—also a natural fit, and her top choice—Wilson excelled. She joined the Urban Educators Cohort Program, and savored study abroad trips to Europe and South Africa. 

She loved her yearlong internship as part of MSU’s Teacher Preparation Program and was recruited quickly to her first full-time teaching position. That felt natural too, at first. 

“It had been my dream to be a teacher. I was finally getting a chance to do what I had always wanted to do … but it didn’t feel right,” Wilson recalled. She felt her role lacked support, and walked away from the classroom. “I never wanted to be a teacher again. This isn’t what it was supposed to be.” 

She taught in other ways: as a behavior consultant for children with autism and as a reading interventionist. Both positions she enjoyed—loved, even. They gave her a glimmer of hope of what teaching could be. Still, she missed the classroom. 

Mario Lemons gave her a call. He was looking for a teacher at DAA; would Wilson fill the role? 

“He was my cheerleader. He gave me the confidence and encouragement to get back into the classroom,” Wilson said. She was hired in 2019. 

Immediately, it felt better. Sure, there was room for improvement, but it was different this time. Then came the pandemic. Then came closures to her son’s daycare. Working full-time and being a mom full-time was challenging, to say the least. And yet, with the will of a Spartan, she made it through. 

Now, in her second year at DAA, Wilson believes it is her best year of teaching yet. She loves teaching again.

Her students are taking classes in a hybrid model: some days in person, and some days virtually. On in-person days, students are at desks spaced six feet apart, while she simultaneously works with other students who attend class virtually. 

The students have “shown every emotion they can possibly show: frustration, annoyance, happiness, excitement.” 

But it’s also given Wilson time to reflect, to run through trial and error to find what works best for her classroom and students—and even to slow down. Instead of the usual in-person average of completing one assignment per day, they are averaging two days per lesson, taking time to really learn the material before moving on. It’s working. 

“Our commitment to learning is being supported in recent assessments,” Wilson said. “Math scores increased from fall to winter [for grades 5 and 6]. Our students are headed in the right direction of learning.” 

It may be, in part, because of the empathy Wilson and her co-teacher, Melissa Bradley, work to show. The “Crew” mentality. 

Often during the Crew sessions for the class, Wilson and Bradley talk about self-care for students, things they can do at home or at school to give themselves kindness and grace. The teachers often ask how the students are doing and take time to honor that things are different—to let them know that, no matter what, their teachers are there for them. 

“I tell my students all the time: ‘You’re living and learning during a pandemic, and you’re doing amazing,’” Wilson said. “‘Give yourself a pat on the back. You’re doing the best you can with the challenges you’ve been given.’” 

Regular surveys to families to check comfort level of attending school in-person (asking questions like: Are you comfortable sending your student in? How many days a week?).
Health screening for every teacher and student—including a temperature check every day, and masks required at all times.
No visitors allowed.
Classrooms socially distanced: With areas marked for desks, independent reading and other learning spaces.
School and class check-ins during Crew: How are students doing? What can you do to give yourself some love?
At time of writing, Detroit Achievement Academy has had zero COVID-19 cases for their teachers and students.

For more on DAA’s response, read their COVID Response and Preparedness Plan:


Genel Fowler headshot. She is an instructional guide and intervention coach. She earned a B.A. '13 (Elementary Education), TCRT '14 and M.A. '18 (Teaching & Curriculum)

Genel Fowler sometimes signs her emails with “Queen,” and it is a fitting title. At Detroit Achievement Academy, Fowler does a little bit of everything to make sure the school runs as well as it can. 

Her role is to help teachers with any modifications they need in their classroom or curriculum—a task that has been in overdrive during the COVID-19 pandemic—and to lead a team of interventionists supporting students on the cusp of grade levels. 

“I have to be ready and willing to do whatever is necessary,” she explained. 

She feels prepared because of her wide-ranging experience during the MSU Teacher Preparation Program and the Urban Educators Cohort Program. The amount of service learning Spartans receive, according to Fowler, is “unmatched,” and is part of what drives her to make learning equitable at DAA. 

“What are we doing with kids when they don’t, or can’t, get online for school? What are we doing to ensure those who are here in-person feel safe? We’ve been doing a lot of restructuring.” 

Some days, that means Fowler is in the testing lab to find the best solutions for problems. Other days, that means she’s teaching. It can also mean working with small groups to mentor and inspire. 

And every day, it includes ensuring a former student goes to school. When a move meant that he would have to go to a different school, Fowler (in agreement with the students’ caregivers), started taking him to and from school every day to maintain consistency in his education. 

See more of Genel’s story on the TODAY Show (Jan. 14, 2021): (Pictured: Fowler with Lemons at Detroit Achievement Academy)

It’s just part of being an educator, to Fowler, and that mentality was inspired by one of her own teachers: Ms. Ramsay, from third grade. 

“Her role was stern, but fair, loving and supportive. She would call you out, but also encourage you. I wanted to walk into the classroom like that. Education, for me, is to be like Ms. Ramsay,” she said. 

So whether it be helping fellow teachers, partaking in the Sunshine Committee or even serving on interview committees—because, yes, she does that, too—Fowler’s choice is to lead with love.


Kevin O'Brien headshot. He is a 7/8th grade math teacher and high school transition coordinator. He earned a B.A. in 2013 from James Madison.

Education wasn’t the plan for Kevin O’Brien, but a life of giving back to the Detroit community where he grew up was. Following a chance meeting with a Teach for America recruiter during his senior year at MSU, he applied to the program, got a job, met his wife and has been leading in the classroom ever since. 

He continues with that service-mindset at DAA, where he’s taken on a new role as the high school transition coordinator. Part of that role is helping students prepare for the high school application process by researching schools, analyzing data and editing lots of entrance essays. 

“I help ensure kids have an equitable chance to get into their best fit of high school, wherever that may be.” 

The collaboration at DAA is one of O’Brien’s favorite things about the school, which he credits to Lemons’s leadership as well as the other leaders and entire staff who help to develop a sense of camaraderie. 

“There’s not a sense of individualism here. We’re consistently pushing each other with ideas,” O’Brien said. He cited a recent professional development offering where teachers shared teaching strategies. O’Brien talked about math justification, or students explaining reasoning behind how and why they came to a conclusion. He learned, and is implementing, strategies from another teacher on how students can provide answers during virtual lessons. 

Exterior of Detroit Achievement Academy. Photo, from pre-2020: Detroit Achievement Academy.

All of O’Brien’s students are attending class virtually, which can be difficult, he said. He misses seeing their faces, and can’t always see their expressions to know if they’re understanding the material. But, he does have higher engagement. He finds when students can share their answers or questions in a private chat, versus raising their hand in class, they’re more apt to be engaged. 

It speaks to his whole view of life, of teaching. What can we do better? 

Better, for O’Brien, often starts with togetherness—even if that does look a little different amidst a pandemic. 

“The more our students evolve and change, the more teachers need to change,” he explained. “I want to roll with that with my students. Let’s not try to keep doing the same things; let’s try to adapt together.”


Mario Lemons talks about urban education, the Urban Immersion Fellowship and his career ambitions in this 2010 video. Want even more about the Urban Immersion Fellowship? Read about the career of Associate Dean Sonya Gunnings-Moton, who created the program.